Word Count: 2000
“Reef the main sail.”
“Reefing main sail, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Faster, men, faster. Put your backs into it, my boys.”
“Main sail reefed, Mr. Cartwright.”
His hands were slipping on the rope. He could feel the burning of skin ripping as he struggled to hold the rope taut despite the constancy of the rain soaking through his fingers and the blood that made his grip less tenable. A wave crashed into him and he felt his feet slide from beneath him as the water cascaded over the side to fall upon him and fill his mouth. The rope slithered free, burning his hands and taking skin and flesh with it.
“Grab the hawser.”
A strong hand gripped his arm and hauled him upright. He turned to face Hemmings, a first-rate crewman and built like an ox. He nodded his thanks briefly, for there was no time for pleasantries when the sea wanted to be the master of the ship and make playthings of the men aboard it.
“Hauling hard, Mr. Cartwright.”
The ship groaned in an agony as she fought the sea. Black as night were the waves and as high as steeples. Ben Cartwright glanced upwards and narrowed his eyes in an attempt to see just how well the mast was holding and whether or not the ’sheets’ were reefed safely. Everywhere there was activity, the men seeming to be in every place at once and yet not one man getting in the way of another. Ship’s discipline and mutual respect for the vessel and her crew was never more evident than when danger, such as this, prevailed.
He turned and looked down at the boy who was now at his side with a white pinched face with dark, frightened eyes and blue lips,
“Get below, boy.”
“Captain said to report below, sir.”
Ben nodded and watched as the boy slithered and slipped his way to the hatch that led below decks. He could remember the first storm at sea he had encountered and wondered if he had looked as green as that lad. He shivered now at the memory.
He had left home at 14 and gone to sea. It had broken his mother’s heart, or so she had claimed, but he could remember her saying that when his elder brother had gone to sea and she had not seemed much changed to him over the years.
Now he clambered down the ladder to the cabin he shared with four other men. Cramped quarters, but after so many years at sea, he was used to it. He poured water into a bowl and watched its poor imitation of the waters raging about them. He dipped his bleeding hands into the water. How many storms at sea had he weathered now? How many Captains had he served under throughout the years? With a sigh, he looked down at his hands and frowned at the sight of them
They were large, well formed hands. Hands used to hard work and capable of any task. He grabbed some linen and swabbed the wounds on the palms of his hands and then the fingers. No time for pampering now; he recalled to mind the Captain wanted to see him and it did no good to keep the Captain waiting,
“Mr. Cartwright?” Hemmings opened the door, “Sea’s bating down, sir. Should be in harbor in two days. Running ahead of schedule now, sir, should you be wanting to tell the Captain.”
“Thank you, Hemmings. Get the ships carpenter to check the masts and run repairs.”
“Aye, sir, will do.” A snappy salute, a pleasant nod of the head and the man was gone. Ben could feel through the timbers of the ship that the sea was surrendering them the victory.
Captain Abel Stoddard turned as his Master’s Mate entered the cabin. He ran a close eye over the seaman and then turned his back on him. There was no doubt about it, Stoddard thought to himself, Ben Cartwright was no ordinary young man. He had strength of character common to many a seaman, that was true, but he had a moral fiber and an intelligence that few possessed. It was the incorruptibleness of the man’s spirit that impressed Stoddard most of all. He had noticed over the past eighteen months since Ben had joined the ship’s company that the man never compromised on a matter of principle, and for that Stoddard respected him above all others.
“Well?” He kept his face to the window. Sometimes Ben’s black eyes and handsome rugged face were a little disconcerting. He listened to the deep voice giving the report on the storm, and found himself thinking that only Ben Cartwright could make it sound like something written from the lines of Shakespeare. When Ben had concluded, he turned and surveyed the man and smiled, “Thank you, Ben. So we should be in harbor within two days?”
“Yes, sir, ahead of schedule. The storm did us a favor.”
“What will you do? Take shore leave?”
“Yes, sir, if permission is granted.”
“Permission is granted.” Stoddard’s’ lean features softened and he nodded to indicate the interview was at an end.
Ben closed the door behind him and smiled. Shore leave granted. Oh, how much he wanted to see of the new world out there. All his life long, since he had been a small boy, he had loved the sea and never wanted for anything other than a ship’s desk to walk upon. But now, as he saw more of the land opening up before them, he felt a new stirring in his blood and a longing to be part of the history of those pioneers who would explore that vast land, and meet those wild people, and who would make their mark on history.
He looked at his hands again and grimaced wryly. As he made his way to the barber surgeon, he wondered if he would make his mark on history. Would he marry? Would he have sons? Would the name Ben Cartwright ever be remembered for posterity? Who would know …?
On land for shore leave, Ben Cartwright inhaled deeply to take in the smells coming from the harbor, from the little shops, the taverns and blacksmiths. Different smells from those that had assailed his nostrils during the past months.
He walked a little way along and noticed that leaves were falling from the trees. He raised his eyes and that was when he first saw her. Her head was bowed and she appeared to be looking among the leaves at her feet as she walked through them. Childlike, she would occasionally kick them to one side as they piled about her ankles.
It seemed to him that she was so young and fragile, with her black hair tumbling down her back and the little face so pale and pensive. He stepped back into the doorway of a tavern as she walked by the building and he caught the anxious look in her eyes as she glanced towards the building before she continued on her way through the falling leaves. It seemed to him that she were a frail little vessel plowing through the waves of the sea.
As he watched, she turned and began to make her way back to the tavern. Hemmings nudged his elbow at that time and passed him a tankard of ale which he raised to his lips, but as she approached, he lowered it again to watch her. His scrutiny, all unobserved, made him feel protective towards her and he wanted to brush aside the leaves that had fallen about her shoulders and upon her dark hair, and repel the pedestrians who had strayed too close to her.
Her dark eyes — were there ever eyes more beautiful or lashes longer –glanced once more in his direction as he lounged against the door of the tavern, the tankard in his hand. Her eyes were raised and met his, and it seemed to him as though his heart had somersaulted into his throat, and he could only stare at her like some big clumsy clod of a boy. He lowered his tankard and smiled,
“Hello,” she said.
Hello – just one word and she had his heart in the palm of her hands. Ben swallowed and nodded and took a deep breath. He said ‘Hello’ in a voice that seemed overloud, like a great boom. She looked a little startled, and then smiled and the dark eyes twinkled,
“You’re Ben Cartwright, aren’t you?”
He nodded and put the tankard on the table and stepped outside. Other women often stopped outside the taverns, and he would not have wanted her reputation to be sullied by those others’ conduct. He put out his hand and she slipped hers into it and gripped it firmly, as though they were old friends,
“I’m Elizabeth,” she said in a light voice that contained laughter within it. “Elizabeth Stoddard. My father asked me to invite you to our home for dinner this evening.”
“Elizabeth.” Ben repeated the name in the way a school boy repeats his lesson at school, for his brain had gone day-tripping with his heart, and as surely as the leaves were falling that day, so had Ben fallen in love with his Elizabeth.
Letter addressed to Abel Stoddard, Boston:
The dream is realized, Abel.
I can’t believe that after so many years since Elizabeth and I first made plans, promises, dreams, I see before me its fulfillment.
I am so full of emotion that I can hardly keep my hand still as I write this to you and if, by some vagary of mine, it seems as though this letter is going off course, forgive me.
Abel, we have sailed the seas together and seen such sights at times. Sights that excite the imagination and sights that create impossible dreams – as well as nightmares. But this – this that I see stretched out before me is of a beauty I cannot describe to you in words fitting enough.
When God created this earth, He must have tucked away this corner of paradise for us, Elizabeth and me. I know she is not with me now, but, having come this far and travelled for so long, it is as though she were now sitting here by my side.
Adam and Hoss are running in and out of the waves that lap upon the shore of the lake. They tell me at Eagle Station that it is called Tahoe. I like that name; it is strong and promises so much.
Around me the sun is drying the morning mists from the trees and the smell of pine is intoxicating. I take in a deep lungful now and close my eyes and thank God for His graciousness in leading me to this place.
The boys are happy. I no longer need to travel on. The wagon is now stationary and the horses can now eat their fill. There is hard work ahead, years of it, but I promise you, Abel, as I promised your daughter, that everything we had hoped for will be ours. Ah, we shared so much, Elizabeth and I, and our dream was founded on this
“The world was all before them
Where to choose their place of rest
And Provident their guide
They hand in hand, with wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.”
Abel, I have found our Eden, Elizabeth’s, Inger’s and mine. Yes, Providence was our guide. How sweet the smell of pine all around; it evokes the greatest of joy within my breast. Thank God for dreams, for hopes, and when realized … thank God again and again. Amen.
Your respectful son-in-law,